Chicago's Metra has trained railroaders to 'Question, Persuade, and Refer' potential suicide victims

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CHICAGO — Metra employees intervened 51 times last year in situations where people appeared to be in distress or were potentially a danger to themselves, according to officials at the commuter rail agency.

The employees had been trained in Metra’s “Question, Persuade, and Refer” program, designed to identify when someone is experiencing anxiety or difficulty, engage with them, bring them to safely and refer them to help.

The program, known simply as QPR, “has been extremely successful in recognizing people in distress” and is being expanded, Metra Chairman Norman Carlson says.

Carlson addressed more than 60 railroad industry representatives, safety advocates, law enforcement officers and others a summit in Chicago March 22 to discuss ways to reduce trespassing and death-by-train incidents. The session was organized by the Illinois Commerce Commission, which regulates railroad transportation in the state.

The problem of suicide by train is particularly acute in the Chicago area, experts say, because the city is the nation’s railroad hub, served by six Class I railroads and Amtrak. Metra itself runs more than 700 trains a day.

The QPR program is aimed at preventing suicides, a topic Carlson said railroads traditionally have been reluctant to discuss. But Metra decided last year to more vigorously confront the problem of death on the tracks, he said. The agency, in partnership with Amtrak and the DuPage (County) Railroad Safety Council, also sponsored a September symposium entitled “Breaking the Silence” intended to coordinate a strategy to prevent suicides.

Metra said it has already trained more than 700 engineers, conductors, and station personnel under QPR. Next to be trained are field employees whose jobs involve work along the right-of-way or stations, Metra officials say.

Within the next 45 to 60 days, Carlson says, Metra will also begin posting signs along the lines it controls. The signs will say, “If you need to talk. We’re here to listen. Let us help.” The signs will also includes phone and text numbers of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

BNSF Railway has its own signs along the Metra line that it operates, and Union Pacific has an agreement with local Rotary Clubs that are placing signs at the stations along that railroad's three Metra lines, officials said.

DuPage County Coroner Richard Jorgensen said there were 13 rail-related deaths in DuPage in 2016 to 2017, out of a total of more than 10,000. But while this number is very small, “Rail fatalities are very public and traumatic.”

Paul Piekarski, an official with the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, said train crews are the “surviving victims” of rail-related deaths.

“We’re helpless up there,” he says, referring to locomotive engineers who can’t stop trains quickly enough to prevent deaths.

Dr. Lanny Wilson, chairman of the DuPage Rail Safety Council and who lost his daughter in a 1994 grade-crossing collision, said the traditional three Es of education, engineering, and enforcement, have been successful in cutting grade-crossing fatalities. But his group has refocused its attention on preventing trespass and suicide deaths.

“Just because people do the wrong thing,” Wilson says. “Death or disability should not be the penalty.”

NEWSWIRETrains News Wire

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